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The Southern Political Tradition by Michael Perman (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 529-530 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0090

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The Southern Political Tradition is an expanded version of historian Michael Perman’s 2007 Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History. This concise but compelling volume exhibits the insightful thinking and historical synthesis that have come to define the lecture series. Utilizing a deep knowledge of primary sources—drawing especially from congressional records and the papers of prominent political figures—and a considerable grasp of historiography, Perman creates a provocative and illuminating portrait of southern politics, isolating the unique practices that characterized the region (3). Drawing inspiration from Richard Hofstadter’s monumental study, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948), Perman contends white southerners’ behavior underpinned a distinct political tradition relevant from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the final decades of the twentieth century.

Three peculiarly southern practices—one-party politics, a defensive political tradition, and the South’s disproportionate political influence—serve as the organizing principles for the book’s five chapters. This thematic focus necessitates quick chronological shifts, which disrupt the work’s narrative. Nonetheless, the pointed insights and conclusions found in this book are enlightening and buttress his excellent work, Pursuit of Unity: A Political History of the American South (2009). Readers might usefully compare Perman’s findings with the arguments presented in Charles W. Eagles, ed., Is There a Southern Political Tradition? Essays and Commentaries (1996).

The book’s first chapter charts the tradition of one-party politics and its three iterations. First, barring a brief stint in the 1830s and 1840s, the South “lived under the rule and governance of a single party” (3). Documenting the shift from Jefferson Republicans to Jackson Democrats, Perman demonstrates how Democrats dominated elections between 1800 and 1860. Between 1868 and 1908, Democrats’ hegemony “rested on their ability to restrict and repress the black vote, through the manipulation of both the system of elections (which they controlled) and the balloting process on election day itself” (17). Finally, between 1908 and the 1960s, white southerners enjoyed a one-party system upheld through the mass disfranchisement of African American voters. Curiously, although Perman discusses the contentious years between 1868 and 1877, he ultimately downplays the competition between Republicans and Democrats, for, he posits, the Democrats’ declaration of the Republican government’s illegality negated the possibility of two-party politics (14–17). Yet, other scholars, including Perman himself in an earlier work, have characterized this as a period of two-party conflict that fundamentally reshaped the South’s post–Civil War era political culture, albeit briefly.

Chapters 2 and 3, which comprise some of the book’s most useful contributions, delineate the origins and form of defensive politics—a posture that defined the region for almost its entire history as part of the United States (25). The South’s system of race relations repeatedly drew outside censure and repeatedly resulted in aggressive acts by white southerners. During the eras of slavery and segregation, Perman notes, the South “was a minority within the nation” creating, at points, a “siege mentality” that profoundly affected the region’s political character (25). Two key historical moments are illustrative: the segregationists’ 1964 claims of being “gagged” by the cloture rule that closed debate over the South’s racial system echoed the language employed by abolitionists who complained about the “gag rule” prohibiting debate over slavery in the 1830s (62). Perman’s observations on “the frontier and filibuster defense” give keen insights into the development of not only a distinct political tradition, but also a broader ideology.

The disproportionate weight of southern political influence composes chapter 4’s focus. Such clout led white southerners’ opponents in the first half of the nineteenth century to charge that a “Slave Power” conspiracy existed. Half a century later, the South’s successful deployment of political influence made the region “the Solid South.” These influences continued unabated until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which dismantled the “political practices and mechanisms that had protected and defended” the white South’s political tradition and are artfully narrated in the book’s final chapter (87).

In just over one hundred pages Michael Perman has created an astute reading of southern politics that...

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